Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano)
Robert Murray (tenor)
Etienne Dupuis (baritone)
Matthew Rose (bass)
Members of the BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Neil Ferris)
BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Neil Ferris)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
L’Enfance du Christ is not an Advent work, but since most of this country’s musical institutions shut down over Christmas, Advent is probably the only chance we shall have to hear it – and even then, only on occasion. But then Messiah is a Lenten work, and yet… There was certainly much for which to be grateful in this BBC SO performance. An initial tendency, heard for instance in the first scene’s Marche nocturne, for Edward Gardner to drive Berlioz’s music too hard, was mercifully not maintained. Indeed, as time went on, Gardner’s tempi relaxed more, greatly to the music’s benefit. The BBC Symphony Chorus’s singing, at the outset a little woolly, sharpened up too. If orchestral colours tended to be stronger on individuality then on blend, that was only a tendency, with plenty of exceptions, not least the opening woodwind recitative, in which the orchestra, Robert Murray, a fine Narrator, drew us in, his entry and that of the strings having the drama gather pace nicely and without exaggeration.
There is something enduringly and endearingly strange to any ‘sacred’ or perhaps better ‘religious’ work by Berlioz. Just as much as with the Requiem, it is perfectly clear, without his needing to say so, that he does not believe a word of it. If that stands very much in a grand, public, ceremonial tradition ultimately as empty as Robespierre’s Cult of the Supreme Being, this becomes an illustrated children’s story that is yet not for children. The vividness of the writing and, one hopes, the performance too has characters, scenes, even locations stand out from the pages, but the lack of belief – not hostile, just ‘as it is’ – remains. That presents its own very particular challenges to the performers, challenges to which they rose very well. Herod’s Aria, for instance, sung darkly and clearly by Matthew Rose, ‘accompanied’ by due orchestral darkness too, might have been sung by a Shakespearean king; it was difficult not to think of parallels in the writer Berlioz loved above all others. In the ensuing scene with the soothsayers, the clarinet first commenting on, then seemingly confirming, the king’s dream, much must be accomplished by instrumental means alone, the ‘stage directions’ acting ‘as if’ there were a stage, written explications to musical ‘illustrations’. Such was certainly the case with the ‘cabalistic’ movements of the soothsayers as they moved to conjure the dark spirits to be ‘appeased’. A dark, Theresa May-like tyrannical resolve was inculcated, heedless of the consequences: infanticide meant infanticide. Just after the Strong and Stable One had flounced out of Parliament ‘in real life’, so too did Herod walk offstage: ‘Malgré les crie, malgré les pleurs de tant de mères éperdues, des rivières de sang vont être répandues, je serai sourd à ces douleurs.’
Pastoral innocence was just what we needed as balm to such malevolence, and so we heard – even saw – it at the Bethlehem stable. Karen Cargill’s beautifully floated lines as Mary remained alert to Berlioz’s idiosyncracies. Joined by Etienne Dupuis, whose suave, stylish, yet heartfelt singing proved very much one of the evening’s highlights, this Holy Family gave us something we might or might not believe in, but which could certainly enchant. Berlioz’s tone-painting did likewise, although it had me think his strictures against Haydn in The Creation not without double standards. Joined by offstage members of the BBC Singers as angels, singing very much in a choral tradition of French semi-archaism, this was a scene not just of contemplation but of readiness to depart. It prepared us as well as the Holy Family well for the short second part: ‘La fuite en Egypte’, its Overture having me wonder again – as I had during Herod’s music – whether Mussorgsky knew the music and unconsciously had it in mind when at work on Boris Godunov. The Russian composer certainly cherished Berlioz’s treatise on orchestration. Sometimes a correspondence is just a correspondence; at any rate, parallels, such as they be, may be worth consideration. The celebrated ‘Shepherds’ Farewell’ flowed nicely, integrated rather than a ‘set piece’. Murray’s narration reminded us how stylish and meaningful his French singing could be; sweet toned too, it was really rather wonderful.
The third part, entitled ‘L’Arrivée à Saïs’, is indeed an arrival in more than a strictly narrative sense. The Holy Family, following malevolent calls, as May would have it, to GO HOME – ‘Arrière, vils Hébreux,’ shout the Roman and Egyptian Tories de leurs jours – nevertheless find shelter with fellow ‘migrants’: an Ishmaelite and his family. And yet – something that came across gently yet strongly in performance – this is not the end of the story. Anticipatory narration, clearly, vividly delivered by Murray and the BBC SO alike, is never quite fulfilled, events and sentiments in the Ishmaelite house – Berlioz’s fugal chorus especially relished – a challenge to us, to the readers of his picture-book to respond or, like many self-styled ‘Christians’, to cross to the other side of the road, with or without ‘citizens of the world’ abuse. Berlioz’s closing chorus, euphonious to a degree, sounded a gentle warning: ‘O mon cœur, emplis-toi du grave et pur amour qui seul peut nous ouvrir le céleste séjour.’ Will any of us heed it?